It’s time for the GAA to forget this national anthem business

The GAA is portraying a specific sense of ‘Irishness’ by wrapping the flag around itself

As America agonises over Colin Kaepernick kneeling during "The Star-Spangled Banner," there was no such angst at All-Ireland Football Final day. Everyone able to at Croke Park did stand up for "Amhran na bhFiann," probably oblivious to just how incongruous playing the national anthem in such circumstances is.

Now the thing with anthems is that they don’t come with a precise protocol bar they must be a droning musical bore. Apart from that you are entitled to mostly do with them as you please, which is what Kaepernick continues to do, the San Francisco 49’ers quarter-back protesting against police racism by refusing to stand for the pre-game anthem.

We usually get a laugh out of America’s instinct towards chest-thumping patriotism. Their national anthem gets aired before practically everything, even at the most innocuous events. And it’s certainly ‘Oh Say Can You See’ time if one gridiron franchise plays another from just down the highway.

Kaepernick has found out it is a ritual bound to all sorts of baggage about respect for the military and what it supposedly means to be American. The rest of the world largely skips this anthem ritual, reserving their bad songs for the international stage, an inclination most everyone goes along with, except of course for one notable sporting corner of Ireland.


Since the GAA is this country’s largest sporting organisation it’s a big corner but bar the US it seems there is no similar inclination anywhere else towards playing the anthem before games which by their very nature aren’t international but in fact the very definition of local.

If it isn't the Artane Band, it's the local Flagellate ensemble, or a scratchy record pumped over the tannoy. Junior B County Finals get the identity treatment: windswept fourth division league matches too. What's different though is that the matter of identity in Ireland is so politically nuanced it makes the Kaepernick controversy comparatively straightforward.

He’s saying black lives matter. No one can argue with that. The furore is over the manner of his protest. And in fact he is being increasingly praised for breaking out of narrow sporting cliché mode and being prepared to express his convictions, although such convictions are invariably easier to praise when they correspond to your own prejudices.

And anyway taking the heat out of the anthem situation in America is easy – just get into line with what’s obvious to most of the rest of the world and play it only on the international stage. Insisting on playing it at home smacks of a hubris and insularity which is perhaps an inevitable consequence of being the most powerful nation on the planet but is nonetheless embarrassing sometimes.

There’s enough flag-waving in the world, too much patriotic posturing. There’s never been a problem that can’t be made worse by wrapping a flag around it, or a song.

In Ireland in particular we know how seemingly trivial things like the songs you choose to sing or the games you play are anything but trivial, bound up as they are in questions of identity that have left people to cope with a lot more than just embarrassment.

So rugby’s ‘Ireland’s Call’ is an insipid dirge but it doesn’t matter. Instead it is an attempt at inclusivity in the face of this island’s horrible sectarian history. It’s never going to be a favourite precisely because it’s so determinedly bland. And it’s that anodyne quality which highlights how so many other songs are anything but.

The Soldiers Song is hardly 'La Marseillaise' in its rousing musicality but the lyrics are similarly bellicose even if some people's lack of Irish means they are reduced to mumbling 'Shoving Connie Around The Green' for its final line. Of course such flippancy will annoy some who take such things very seriously, just the sort of emotion in fact which makes it anything but "just a song."

Maybe it’s a sign of a young democracy that this stuff matters. Maybe it requires centuries of maturity for it not to matter.

But the reality is that the GAA’s insistence on the anthem being played before so many games is a self-consciously deliberate gesture inevitably loaded with layers of meaning that can make the organisation’s stated goal of greater inclusivity sound hollow. It will mean nothing when ‘God Save The Queen’ means nothing in Windsor Park.

By continuing to wrap the flag around itself so tightly the GAA is also portraying a very specific sense of ‘Irishness.’ It’s the whole ‘Gael’ bit, that unspoken but understood sense that playing hurling and speaking the cupla focal and pining for the fourth green field is somehow ‘real’ Irish, a pose that might once have resonated but increasingly just looks old and chippy.

Not that it's going away. The former Armagh captain, Jarlath Burns, last year said he would have no problem with the anthem not being played before matches in the interests of trying to encourage other people, including those of a different political persuasion, into the games.

Inevitably he got cut to pieces by usual suspects tossing the same tired old  terms such as ‘self-loathing’ and ‘West Brit,’ spouting about their right to identity without seeming to consider how such rights are as much a two-way street as the capacity to take offence.

Such stridency however indicates a lack of self-confidence unworthy of an organisation that is such an integral and positive part of everyday life. If the GAA is serious about inclusivity it should acknowledge that gestures like the anthem matter, a damn sight more here in fact than in the US.

There are enough expressions of ‘what we are’ in the matches themselves. In comparison pointed pre-match exhibitions of supposed identity are as old and trite as the custom of kneeling before bishops used to be.